Bellamy and the Brute (2017), by Alicia Michaels

In Bellamy and the Brute, a popular, well-off high school senior is punished for his arrogant and entitled behaviour. Cursed by a disfiguring disease, he retreats into solitude in the upper floor of his family mansion. Enter Bellamy, who is hired as a summer babysitter for his younger siblings. Expressed this way, you can see how Alicia Michaels’s novel is in fact a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, even if the title weren’t so suggestive. But I have to admit that I had to actually think about the underlying teen-angst portion of the tale in order to draw the comparison. The story is so much more interesting than this superficial description leads one to believe, containing as it does murder, ghosts, political corruption, and familial conflict.

FBI Camilla Vasquez is on administrative leave pending a psychological evaluation. Her younger sister, Isabella, had been found dead in a hotel room, but Camilla refuses to believe it was suicide as claimed. It doesn’t surprise us when her brakes mysteriously fail and her car plunges over an embankment. It does surprise us when her spirit looks down on her dead body, takes the hand of her sister, and walks away from the accident. Perhaps it shouldn’t have surprised me, but I was already so engaged with Camilla as an intelligent protagonist that I was shocked. I had forgotten that I was still reading the prologue. And Camilla, it turns out, is not the protagonist.

Bellamy McGuire is shunned by her schoolmates, teased because of both her scholarly aptitude and her father’s eccentricities. In the two years since his wife’s death Nate McGuire has been seeing ghosts, and the townsfolk consider him deranged, if not actually dangerous. This impacts the income from the family bookstore, so Bellamy takes a summer job as a babysitter for the Baldwin family to help out. Their generosity is curtailed by only one demand: do not go up to the third floor of the house.

Cue mysterious music…

It should be corny, but it isn’t. When Bellamy first sees the ghosts of Camilla and Isabella, she is (not surprisingly) terrified; the plot thickens when she discovers that Tate Baldwin, the disfigured eldest son of the house, can see them too. This revelation (again not surprisingly) draws the two together in a complicated relationship of antagonism mixed with empathy. As Bellamy and Tate begin to work together to unravel the mysterious connections between Tate’s illness and the ghosts’ demand of justice, their investigations lead them deep into a web of corruption ultimately implicates even members of Tate’s family.

Part of what makes this novel so successful is that readers really don’t know the extent of Tate’s family’s involvement in the plot that the two are uncovering. Even when we begin to see what really is going on, we are uncertain how various characters will respond; this unpredictability is an essential component of an effective mystery. As the story progresses, numerous mystery novel tropes can be easily envisioned, and we are not certain which direction Michaels will be taking us. To her credit, her choices do not cater to our narrative expectations.

Continuing this trend of upsetting our predictions, just when we think the threat is gone—the corruption is revealed and the perpetrators headed towards justice—Bellamy and Tate’s lives are knocked sideways by the almost-forgotten high school bullying that landed Tate in his mess in the first place. While the adult world of political corruption is presented as a more serious threat to life, the conflict between Tate and his ex-friend Lincoln has more tragic results. Again, Michaels does not give clues to where she is going to take us; we really believe that bad things can happen to good people. The two separate narratives parallel each other effectively; the explicit message in both is that we are all ultimately responsible for all of our choices, not only our actions. In spite of the rollercoaster ride, karma ultimately plays a strong role in this very griping mystery novel.

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The Little Broomstick (1971), by Mary Stewart

In anticipation of Studio Ponoc’s upcoming release of Mary and the Witch’s Flower, I thought I would read Mary Stewart’s The Little Broomstick, upon which the movie is based. Mary Stewart is, after all, one of my favourite adult authors. It turns out that The Little Broomstick is not all that easy to find, but yesterday my copy came in the post, shipped all the way from the wilds of North Yorkshire.

Mary Stewart is a mistress of descriptive writing, as much in The Little Broomstick as in her novels for adults, but this is not perhaps a strength: the child reader will likely not want to savour the lengthy, intimate description of Great-Aunt Charlotte’s gardener, or even the garden he inhabits, with its “sad, beautiful smell of autumn” (13). But maybe I am unfairly imposing the sensibilities of a modern child reader on a book written in 1971; for me, timeless classics such as Black Beauty (1877) and Swallows and Amazons (1930) fail in this regard just as strongly. The intelligence and sophistication with language that are a trademark of Stewart’s writing are similarly weakened when aimed at a younger readership. Again, though, modern sensibilities may be at fault in my evaluation, for her narrative style does effectively meld childish linguistic simplicity with a hint of fairy tale rhetoric. There is something almost Diana-Wynne-Jonesian about her narrative voice, which can only be a good thing in a story about witches.

The story begins in a rather recognizable way, with a young girl sent off to live with an aged relative (à la The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, 1950). Lonely, she wanders into the autumn-dying garden, and encounters the taciturn gardener and a robin flitting about “as if it were his familiar” (à la The Secret Garden, 1911). The discovery of a magical flower (the “witch’s flower” of the anime) and its animation of a little broomstick Mary finds, lead her to Endor College for witches. I am certain that J.K. Rowling has read this book. From here, though, The Little Broomstick branches out on its own, refusing to conform to the trope of schools for good witches and wizards such as Hogwarts, Larwood House, or Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. The students at Endor College are learning “spells of the simpler kind. Turning milk sour, blighting turnips, making the cows go dry” (51), and chanting distorted versions of children’s verse (à la Alice in Wonderland (1865), but lacking any levity) that are unquestionably intended to harm. Mary is quite sure that, despite the cat Tib and the Little Broomstick having brought her here, this is not a school she wishes to attend.

Again disrupting current narrative tropes, Mary’s magic does not come from any hereditary propensity to witchcraft, but rather from her finding the witch’s flower and rubbing its pollen on the broomstick handle. Or so one could choose to believe, if one did not want to consider Mary in any way connected with the evil that is Endor College. And Mary does distance herself irrevocably from the institution, actually effecting its demise. But the question still remains: why, on her first foray into the woods, did Mary find the magical flower that blooms only once every seven years? And why did she find the Little Broomstick hidden in a corner that replaced the unwieldy besom the gardener hands her to use? And why does the invisibility spell work so well on a neophyte, unless she possesses some latent magic of her own? These questions remain unanswered in the light of the logical, “daylight world” dénouement provided, but readers are allowed still to wonder…

So despite my initial reservations, coming from a strong habit of reading Mary Stewart’s writing from adults, I have to say that The Little Broomstick satisfies in every way: it refused to present a warm-cuddly version of witchcraft and magic; it has a simple yet exciting plot that takes place in a number of days rather than weeks or months (more satisfying for younger readers); and it leaves readers with something to wonder about, even while it presents an easily accepted narrative path for Mary’s future. I can imagine reading this to a young child over the space of a week, but perhaps not at bedtime. I wish I had found a copy ten or twelve years ago, and read it to my own children.

The Merlin Conspiracy (2003), by Diana Wynne Jones

Like her Tam Lin retelling, Fire and Hemlock (1985), this tale does not rise to the level of effectiveness that the Chrestomanci series or Howl’s Moving Castle (1996) does. The characters are all interesting, and the plot cleverly arranged and effectively sustained, but there are… it is hard to describe… just too many words. The narrative, like Fire and Hemlock, would have been more effective if reduced about 30% in length. While Diana Wynne Jones’s concept of multiple parallel universes is fascinating, this is not the best example of her use of that narrative paradigm. Sacrilege thought it may be in the world of children’s literature to suggest such a thing, I would love to have seen these of Jones’s concepts in the hands of a more adept author.

This Canada of Ours (1929), by Maud Morrison Stone

Stone, Maud Morrison, and J.S. Morrison. This Canada of Ours: A Pictorial History (Toronto Musson, 1929).

This post is a bit academic, as I have copied it over from our Canada’s Early Women Writers project blog. Sometimes the cross over is really interesting: Maud Morrison Stone, for example, was co-author of one of the first forays into the graphic narrative format…

A couple of weeks ago, I was contacted by Maud Morrison Stone’s great-niece, Christine Owen, a recently retired lawyer who had been sorting through her parents’ papers. She kept running across papers referring to and written by this author relative, and so began to search the internet for more information. And found us. All we had about Maud Morrison Stone at the time was a reference to one book: This Canada of Ours (1937). Now we know so much more.

About the text

The publication of This Canada of Ours has some interesting aspects to it. The first edition was actually 1929, and came in a paper slipcover with a drawing of a young boy reading on it (or some such design; Christine was not entirely sure). Christine also has another 1929 edition, from which I have scanned a few pages, which is likely a second printing, as it includes no slipcover. You can note on the cover, though, that the book is credited first to J.S. Morrison, Maud’s brother John Stuart, who illustrated the book. While this might seem odd, or even male chauvinist, it is in fact the remnant of the book’s first life as a graphic narrative, serialized from 2 May 1925 through 23 May 1929 in a number of Canadian periodicals (Border Cities Star (Windsor, ON), Brantford Expositor, Calgary Herald, Cowichan Leader (Duncan, BC), Edmonton Journal, Lethbridge Herald, Ottawa Citizen, Ottawa Journal, Canadian Observer (Sarnia, ON), Saskatoon Star, St. Catharines Standard, The Times Journal (St. Thomas, ON), Sydney Post, Vancouver Province, Victoria Colonist, Winnipeg Tribune). So in the first iteration, J.S. Morrison was far more than just the illustrator. (For a better discussion of early North American educational comics as a genre, see John Adcock’s post of 22 October 2012 on Yesterday’s Papers.)

While the serialized graphic narrative and the 1929 edition were intended as an educational tool for school children, in 1937 a revised and expanded edition was published, intended for a more adult audience. This edition included 63 chapters, and covered much more of Canadian history than the earlier edition’s 29 chapters, which ended with Count Frontenac. It is interesting to note, though, that the final page of the 1929 edition reads “The End of Volume One,” more than suggesting that the remainder of the story, included in the 1937 edition, was originally intended as a second volume in the more juvenile format. Reviews of the 1929 edition are almost exclusively positive, heralding it as a fine example of this innovative narrative form for educating young readers; it would be interesting to know why the second volume was never produced. (I see an academic paper topic in the comparison of the serialized version with the two published editions, for any graduate students out there looking for something to focus on…)

About the story

It was interesting how strongly the content of This Canada of Ours corresponds to what I was taught in the early 1970s about our country, in contrast to the far more culturally balanced history taught today. The story of the naming of Canada, for example, is exactly as I remember it; I have included it here because it brings back to me another story from my youth.

In 1982, I was in Jyväskylä, Finland, as a Rotary Exchange student. The instructor of the Grade 11 English class I attended told a version of the story popular in Europe at the time. When the Spanish came up the west coast of Canada (he told the class), they saw the vast stretches of forest and mountain and pronounced: “aquí nada,” which became Ca-nada. And hence the country was defined in its vast nothingness (yes, he did add that last part). He was some not impressed when I, in my youthful egoism, pointed out the error of his position. After all, Samuel de Champlain (1574-1635) founded the city of Quebec in 1608, while Captain James Cook (1728-1779) reached the west coast of Canada in 1778; both were much later than the name of Canada was in use. Wikipedia will tell you that in fact Jacques Cartier (1491-1557) was the first to use the name, which (as This is Our Canada also tells us) almost certainly comes from “kanata,” the Iroquois word for “village.” The Spanish-language story (which is a not-unknown alternate etymological explanation, Wikipedia again tells us) refers to Christopher Columbus sailing the ocean blue (1492) and discovering the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. But the Portuguese and Spanish stuck to depleting the cod population and didn’t go up the St. Lawrence at all, so I stand with Maud Morrison Stone on this one.

The rest of the story

The book is dedicated “To the memory of Adam Morrison and Mary McLeod Morrison, U.E.L., our father and mother, who taught us to love Canada.” A more patriotic beginning would be hard to find. The authors are obviously sincere in their appreciation of Canada and Canadian history: they begin with “The story of Canada is one of absorbing interest,” and we grow to believe them. The writing is far more engaging than the history books I read, certainly, but the sheer level of detail must have been daunting to any school-aged reader. The historical information is about 60% running text, scattered through with illustrations separate from the graphic narrative panels. Interspersed as well are snippets of poetry by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Sir Walter Scott, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Sir Walter Raleigh, and even our own Jean Blewett. More than just J.S. Morrison’s illustrations as a method of engaging readers’ interest, Maud Morrison Stone tells stories of the men (and a very few women) who helped settle North America. The authors are thorough in their understanding of the politics of settlement, including the histories of all the regions of the eastern seaboard as integral to the development of the Canadian nation.

The selection of stories seems inclusive to me, but then I was raised with this as the fundamental narrative of our nation. No matter what content was taught 40 years ago, though, it is impossible now to avoid a colonial blindness to or elision of the First Nations’ perspective. This is not the forum for intense consideration of this topic, but even more than an investigation of the textual production of This Canada of Ours, I would love to see an analysis of the colonial discourse included herein. The First Nations are included in seemingly positive or at worst neutral ways—better by far than the blatant racism of some early versions of Canadian exploration and settling—but there is an underlying feeling of important issues being mentioned then glossed over. I might not give this text to my children as a resource, but then again, I might: with the right guiding hand, the stories Maud Morrison Stone tells, however strongly embedded in the Eurocentric discourse of its time, could still today give rise to productive discussion of the real history of our nation.

(I leave you with the harrowing tale of Henry Hudson, set adrift with his young son to die on the icy Bay that afterward bore his name, Betrayed by a mutinous crew led by his first-mate, Joel, “a gutter-snipe ‘pressed’ from the streets of Bristol.” What can one expect from a starving, disheartened crew and a first-mate kidnapped and pressed into service against his will, one might ask, but the author’s sympathies are unquestionably with Hudson here.)